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A Couple of Burger Lovers Take a Stand

Small business: Entrepreneurs buy legendary Jayburgers after looking at the menu, but not its books. Now the tough part begins.

May 10, 2000|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jay's Jayburgers is back.

Despite a whopper of a rent increase and a near-miss by the wrecking ball, the legendary Los Angeles burger shack at Santa Monica Boulevard and Virgil Avenue will soon be cooking again.

Octogenarian founder Lionel "Jay" Coffin is still in the mix as well. Only this time he's passing the spatula to two thirtysomething entrepreneurs who stopped by the stand for a farewell Jayburger and ended up buying the place instead.

It's a deal forged on a handshake, respect for a neighborhood landmark and a shared love of Jay's signature chili-laden burgers and dogs.

Whether it makes good business sense remains to be seen. New owners Michael Leko and Dana Hollister admit they never looked at the books before jumping in to save the stand after its March closing.

But armed with Coffin's chili recipe and the blessing of the founder himself, they're planning to update operations, if only ever so slightly, to preserve the joys of the double Jayburger for a new generation of Angelenos.

"Jay's isn't just a another burger stand," Leko said. "It's a piece of Los Angeles."

A piece that nearly got flattened like scores of other local landmarks after Coffin lost the land lease under his tiny red-and-white shack earlier this year.

To hear Coffin tell it, the new landlords wanted a bigger bite of his burger trade. He says they jacked the $2,000 monthly rent to $5,000, figuring he'd either pay through the nose or go away quietly, leaving his metal shack for them to take over or rent to someone else.

"They knew it was a good business," he said. "I think they had ideas of their own."

But Tom Lee, whose parents Mary and Paul own the property, says the $5,000 figure was never an ultimatum, just a starting point for negotiations. He says the family was simply trying to get a fair return on its investment, and they had no intention of forcing out a solid tenant like Coffin, much less starting their own burger business.

"I've got enough headaches as it is," said Lee, who runs the 7-Eleven across the street from the burger stand.

One thing is certain. For a guy who worked behind a counter much of his life, Coffin never has taken orders very well. He got his start in 1954 flipping burgers for Tom Koulax, founder of Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers. But he left after a couple of years to start his own place across from Los Angeles City College because he wanted to do things his way.

Coffin set up shop on his present corner in 1968. Now 82, with a fringe of white hair and liquid blue eyes that don't see as well as they used to, he hasn't pulled a shift in front of the grill in ages. But he's still as peppery as his chili. That's why those who know him weren't surprised when Coffin started talking about knocking down his burger shack rather than leave it for his landlords.

"He's an honorable guy from the old school," said Netty Carr, a Silver Lake restaurant owner and longtime friend of Coffin. "He can also be pretty cantankerous."

At Carr's urging, Coffin considered relocating the building or applying for landmark status. But with time and his lease running out at the end of March, he staged a combination protest rally and farewell party. A cross-section of his customers, from nostalgic old-timers and young hipsters to new immigrant families, turned out for free burgers and a few collective sighs about the demise of yet another L.A. institution.

Among them were friends Hollister and Leko, who began chatting with Coffin about ways to save the landmark business. Longtime fans of the food (double Jayburger topped with bacon, egg and cheese for Leko; two plain burger patties for Hollister's low-carbohydrate diet), they thought about a partnership, an equity investment, anything to keep it going.

Coffin listened politely but was noncommittal. Hollister, the 38-year-old co-owner of the L.A. interior design studio Odalisque, seemed sharp and business-like enough. And there was no denying the preservationist passion of Leko, 31, a veteran restaurateur who looks every bit the Silver Lake bohemian that he is. Which turned out to be part of the problem.

"All those tattoos," Coffin said gravely. "He kind of scared me, to be honest with you."

So he hired a demolition contractor the very next day.

The windows and miniature patio were already pulverized when Hollister arrived by chance upon the scene.

"I think I screamed when I saw that sledgehammer hit," she said. "I thought we had more time."

Standing amid the rubble of the half-demolished shack, the trio's negotiations turned serious. Coffin was blunt: $50,000 for the name and the building. Take it or leave it. Hollister and Leko soon had a $10,000 check in his hands with a handshake promise to pay the balance over time. Suddenly it dawned on them what they'd gotten themselves into.

"We had a banged-up metal shack, no lease, no recipes and no Jay," Hollister said. "Obviously, it wasn't the tidiest business deal" ever made.

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